According to standard usage, to draw on the "bank of mom and dad" is to accept one's parents as kind benefactors or eager coddlers or else to treat them as easy marks. A child or cash-strapped young adult might turn to this institution to secure a down payment on a starter home or a fancy pair of shoes or, c'mon, just 20 bucks? The filial-financial relationships engineered on Bank of Mom and Dad (SOAPnet, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET) are an entirely different thing. Each episode of the show finds parents attempting to beat some sense into their high-credit-risk offspring. This is not so much a bank as an incorporated torture mechanism whose repo men used to change the deadbeat's diapers.
Bank of Mom and Dad feels like a cross between a thinly premised chick-lit novel and a debt-counseling session, which is to say that it's a semi-comedic feel-good makeover exercise. Every week, a sleek and strict personal-finance coach named Farnoosh Torabi tries to rein in a spendthrift by forcing her to host her own parents for a week. It's like the house arrest of debtors' prisons. Whereas the host of a personal-style show like What Not To Wear might take scissors to a woman's blobby flannel pants or set her iridescent tube top aflame, Torabi provides the parents with a custom shredding machine—"The Debt-O-Nator"—with which to wreck the daughter's plastic. Then Torabi climbs back into her town car for a while, and the family gets down to the business of setting priorities, reforming spending habits, and sharing three-way hugs.
The debut deadbeat is Christina, a 33-year-old with an apartment in Queens and a mouth perpetually scrunched in a petulant sideways smirk. Christina is $38,000 in the hole, partly because she has fallen way behind on her student-loan payments, enabling her creditors to raise interest rates to levels that would make Shylock tremble with guilt. We learn the further particulars of her impending financial ruin according to a rhythm appropriate to SOAPnet: the channel's mandate to provide melodramatic reversals.
We hear that Christina has racked up a bunch of medical bills, and our joints tingle in sympathy with her bad knees. We see that she has accrued $1,300 in parking tickets and then think she's endearingly silly—until it emerges that her car is, like, a Saab Turbo and we feel a charge of detestation. And when it emerges that Christina spends far more every month than the $2,500 she makes slinging drinks, we wonder why Torabi never encourages her to increase her earnings by employing the time-honored barmaid's technique of showing more cleavage.
Her rehabilitation unfolds along similar lines. Christina scrubs a yoga-studio bathroom to pay for her daily downward-dogging and submits to a blind taste test to prove that she can't actually appreciate the quality of real balsamic vinegar. The skillfully mawkish emotional climax comes when the parents confront the daughter with a wheelchair—a vision of her fate if she doesn't start taking care of her knees. Chastened, Christina pledges to make room for health insurance in her new budget. Then Bank of Mom and Dad shifts from reality show to pure fiction. I don't know how else to explain that the insurance costs only $200 a month.
The other new debt-related entertainment pulsing in your cable box is Pay It Off (BET, Fridays at 10 p.m. ET), "the show where your knowledge of pop culture can get your bills paid." In terms of the difficulty of the questions and the blue-lit poststructural hideousness of the set, Pay It Off is on about the level of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Airing on Black Entertainment Television, the show serves the channel's core audience by including material on Malcolm X and Motown in addition to quizzes about OPEC and Elmo. The first episode features an endearing contestant named Alisha who racked up $15,000 in debt while getting a B.A. at a Bible college. She wants to get rid of the payments so that she can build a bigger house so that she can be a foster parent and do good Christian things. Alisha chokes back tears as she explains this. It presents a fine contrast to a cheesy line in her intro: "If my debt was wiped clean today, I would say, Hallelujah!"